The Immigration and Naturalization Service was alerted by an informant more than three years ago about the indentured servitude of dozens of Thai nationals at a sweatshop in El Monte, but took no enforcement action until state labor officials got a similar tip six weeks ago, state officials said Thursday at a news conference.
A woman who escaped through the air-conditioning duct of an El Monte apartment complex and garment sweatshop alerted state authorities, leading to a raid Wednesday at three locations, the arrest of 10 people and the detention of 74 undocumented Thai immigrants who had been held as virtual slaves, the officials said.
The INS also backed out of the raid only 15 hours before state and other federal officials were poised to execute a state search warrant, forcing them to enlist the help of El Monte and Los Angeles police, said state Labor Commissioner Victoria Bradshaw. “It was very frustrating,” she said.
Only after officials from the state and the U.S. Department of Labor executed the warrant did INS officials come in to investigate.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the INS western region, confirmed that “the INS did obtain information several years ago regarding what may have been the same scenario.”
But she said she was not aware of the nature of the information, and added: “We attempted to follow up. But we were never able to secure enough information to go forward with the investigation.”
Six people were charged Thursday in federal court in Downtown Los Angeles with harboring illegal immigrants and two others were charged with transporting them in connection with the operation in which undocumented Thai immigrants were allegedly held at a barbed-wire-clad El Monte apartment building, a second sweatshop in Downtown Los Angeles and the home of one of the principals in Panorama City.
Two of those arrested have not been charged.
The charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. However, a long list of additional federal and state charges, possibly including peonage, selling into involuntary servitude, extortion, kidnaping and violating passport and visa laws, is being prepared.
The eight defendants were being held in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Downtown Los Angeles while investigators gather more evidence.
The undocumented workers, some of whom had been held as long as seven years, working 120 hours a week for less than $2 an hour, were cooperating with the investigation while being held at the INS San Pedro Service Processing Center on Terminal Island.
“Some of the workers will be material witnesses in the case,” said Kice. “Some may be placed in deportation proceedings. We’ll make decisions on an individual basis.”
Kice also said some people might be allowed to stay if they have family here or have been here for several years.
At a news conference, Bradshaw said the employees are owed $2,556,989 in back wages.
The state was seeking a lien against the defendants’ assets to keep them from moving money out of the country. Documents seized in the El Monte raid showed hundreds of thousands of dollars in wire transfers to domestic and foreign banks, Bradshaw said. More than $750,000 in cash and a quantity of gold jewelry were also seized.
In addition, the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement will seek $492,800 in penalties from the defendants on a variety of labor code violations, and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is seeking at least $65,000 in penalties.
In their criminal complaint, federal investigators quoted Bubpha Rhangmak, a Thai immigrant who said she was smuggled into the United States under a falsified passport in 1992. She said she was forced to work as a sewing machine operator to pay off $4,800 in travel fees and witnessed the severe beatings of other workers who tried to escape.
Bradshaw said most of the workers held at the El Monte site were women, some in their 20s and 30s.
The only time they were allowed to leave the building was reportedly when they were loaded onto a truck and driven to the Downtown sweatshop for an annual New Year’s party.
Workers were warned that people back in Thailand would retaliate against their families there if they did not behave, Bradshaw said.
The workers sewed women’s ready-to-wear garments, some of which ended up in East Coast department stores such as Filene’s, Hecht’s, Macy’s Northeast and Famous-Barr, Bradshaw said. She added that the retailers themselves may have legitimately purchased the garments from manufacturers who in turn had subcontracted with shops that subcontracted with the El Monte operation.
State officials began surveillance of the El Monte operation six weeks ago, when they received the tip from the escaped informant. At the same time, Bradshaw said, she notified the INS. “The INS said they became aware of an [earlier] informant from El Monte in April of 1992,” Bradshaw said.
INS spokeswoman Kice confirmed: “Six weeks ago, the state did contact us and make us aware of their ongoing investigation into this operation and location . . . and we have been working with them and sharing information since.”
Working with other state and federal agencies, Bradshaw said, officials planned to raid the operation this past Wednesday, with the promise of 25 INS agents and 12 Thai translators.
But on the evening before the raid, she said, the INS backed out, maintaining that its agents could not go in under a state warrant.
Kice said: “Our personnel are authorized to execute federal search warrants. . . . In this instance, we had not yet secured sufficient information to secure a federal search warrant. So we advised the state that we would be standing by to support them when they went in and executed their search warrant. . . . We were there within minutes [after the state called].”
When the raid was completed, Bradshaw said, some of the undocumented workers were giddy upon being freed. “They were so excited just to get out of there,” she said.
The eight people charged Thursday and ordered held without bail are Sunee Manasulangkoon, Tavee Uvawas, Sunton Rawungchaisung, Rampa Suthaprasit, Seree Granjapiree, Hong Wangdee, Suporn Verayutnilai and Thanes Panthong.
A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 17.
Times staff writer Rebecca Mowbray contributed to this story.
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